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John Clarke: Wit & humour

John Clarke. Photo/APN

Voted the greatest living Kiwi comedian in the Listener poll, John Clarke writes that the New Zealand sense of humour is said to be "laconic, understated and self-deprecating" - but are those attributes unique to Kiwis?

Thinking about humour, I am reminded of an old army story. In 1945, the 2nd New Zealand Division fought a costly street-by-street battle against the retreating German army to take the city of Trieste, in northern Italy. Once the city was secured, the Americans decided a victory parade was in order, to be headed by the elite US Marines. It was pointed out that the Americans had arrived after the battle had finished and that the fighting had been done by the New Zealanders. The Italian campaign was nevertheless being run by US Army command and the parade went ahead as planned. In front came the US Marines, with a large banner bearing their emblem and the words "US Marines. Second to None." Behind them marched the New Zealanders, carrying a large sheet on which was written the word "None". This squares my shoulders nicely. I'll have what they're having.

The New Zealand sense of humour is said to be laconic, understated and self-deprecating. Even if true, this is not very helpful, as the same claim is not unreasonably made for the humour of the Scots, the Irish, the English, the Australians, the Russians, the Canadians and the Ancient Greeks, among others. North American humour rests on a writing tradition also rich in irony, laconic delivery and litotes. Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and Ruth Draper were all people whisperers. Dave Barry and many other writers enrich this tradition today.

In ancient Greece, irony was considered "the glory of the slaves", suggesting that you can't have irony from above. How the world can consist only of underdogs is an interesting question. It may be that an ironical perspective emerges from the underclass of each society or in each ­of us, and that these are not national ­characteristics at all.

When my generation was growing up, there was no television and no New Zealand radio comedy. This was not because New Zealanders weren't funny. A lot of our parents had just returned from the war, and if they had a gift for humour it wasn't much use professionally; it was just part of their personality. They didn't tell jokes; they just talked very well, often about local things. A man once described a friend from the hill country as having ears a bit further back than the rest of us. "It's the wind," he said. "They get these very big westerlies. He had to go and get his wife from up near Opotiki the other day. She'd gone to hang the washing out. She still had the peg basket.'"

World War II was the biggest conflict in human history. Seventy million people were killed. An important aspect of dealing with the carnage, tragedy and waste was humour. It helped articulate what the Allies were fighting against and it fortified resolution and hope. There was humour in concerts for the troops, in books and magazines and there was radio. Humour identifiable as coming from New Zealand emerged at this time.

David Low's famous Evening Standard cartoon (20/9/39). British Cartoon Archive, University of Kent.

The most famous cartoonist in Britain was New Zealander David Low. He reinvented the drawing style and purpose of the newspaper cartoon, removing cross-hatching and class-conscious trivia and introducing bold lines and a moral stance on political issues. He spotted Hitler and the Nazis well before they came to power, and portrayed them as liars, thugs and murderers. He opposed appeasement and was deadly and relentless in subjecting Hitler and Mussolini to continuous open mockery. His depiction of the Nazi-Soviet Pact became one of the most celebrated cartoons of the century. After the war, it was discovered Hitler had prepared a list of the people he would kill when he conquered Britain. David Low, a Presbyterian socialist from Dunedin, was No 5.

The most successful wartime radio show was It's That Man Again, broadcast by the BBC from 1939-49 and featuring the comedian Tommy Handley. The show, known as ITMA, was the comedy equivalent of Vera Lynn and it sustained the civilian population through its dark night. It also changed the way radio comedy worked, establishing new forms to which the TV sitcom owes a significant debt today. ITMA was written by Ted Kavanagh, from Auckland.

Throughout the campaign through Greece, Crete, the Middle East and up into Italy, the 2nd New Zealand Division had a steady procession of successes and setbacks, not always of their own making. One danger would be averted, one cock-up survived, one victory won, when a fresh disaster would arrive and all hope would seem lost. In response to this pattern, the Division adopted intelligence officer Paddy Costello's sardonic and perfectly balanced "Hooray f---."

A major point of contact between my generation and these men and women was The Goon Show. It ran on radio through the 1950s, but was essentially a World War II show in which the madness witnessed by soldiers like Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe and the New Zealand Division was defused by logic disposal experts using surreal language and operating in a landscape of idiots, explosions and death. Only the British class structure held firm, just in case you didn't get the point that the system was absurd.

I didn't know any of the history. I laughed at the jokes and the funny voices. Even when my father despaired of his children and developed a rhetorical shaking of his head in disbelief while moaning "What have we reared?", we still laughed at the same bits in The Goon Show. We looked at each other and we smiled and laughed. When nothing else worked, The Goon Show convinced us we were related.

Television and the internet have not changed humour a great deal and we shouldn't expect them to. In writing about humour, Freud quotes a joke from Sophocles, which dates from as recently as about 400BC. A king is touring his kingdom and as he passes through a town he sees in the crowd a young man who looks very like him. He arranges for the man to be brought to him privately and he asks him, "Was your mother ever employed at the palace? Did she ever work in the royal household at all?" "No, Your Majesty," replies the young man. "No, she never did." Then he adds, "But Dad did."

This article was first published in the August 1, 2009 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.